I decide to stop my motorbike in front of the narrow improvised bridge. I feel relieved and worried at the same time. Relieved, as the previous river crossing did not offer the luxury of a bridge. I had to launch my semi-automatic 125 cc Honda Dream motorbike into the murky stream and use all of my skills to extract it from the water in which it was immerged wheel-deep. Worried, as this wooden bridge is no more than 50-centimetre wide, with no rails to prevent a potential fall into the water, and for good measure a missing plank in the centre leaving a gap just the right size to sink the front wheel in.
I am looking at my partner with envy as she has already crossed. When she turns her head, I capture her smile and instantly come up with a genius plan to get my motorbike to the other side without losing face. Getting off the saddle, I take my Canon reflex camera out of my backpack, cross the bridge on foot, and capture my partner crossing the bridge on my bike, a scene that is so common in the Cambodian countryside. Seemingly casually, and internally very grateful, I hop back on my motorbike to keep driving to the Khmer ruins of Beng Mealea, one of the most famous temples of Cambodia that we are literally reaching off the beaten path.
Unexpectedly, this scene takes place only about 40 kilometres away from the Siem Reap beehive, with its constant tuk-tuk traffic and honking horns. It took us only minutes to leave what is undoubtedly Cambodia’s most touristy city and gateway to the temple complex of Angkor Wat to find ourselves riding amongst rice paddies. Following our guide on dirt tracks that are not drawn on any maps, we observe typical Cambodian life: villages with bamboo houses on stilts, improvised tractors serving as public transport, kids in uniforms on oversized Dutch-style bicycles riding through deep potholes, water buffaloes grazing, fishermen throwing their nets in shallow streams, people coming back from the nearby market with their scooters heavily packed… Everyone seems to converge to the authentic market of Preah Dak, also referred to as noodle village by tourist guidebooks. Delicious fried rice balls stuffed with bananas or filling sweet potato puddings or exotic fruits are some of the treats displayed on woven bamboo mats, and good snacks before continuing to the lost temple.
Half swallowed by the thick jungle, the Beng Mealea temple remains a mystery. Built in the 12th century, and completed under the reign of Suryavarman II, the king builder of Angkor Wat, its purpose is unknown. No known carvings give the name of its initiator, and stories of the Hindu Shiva or Vishnu deities are mixed up with some Buddha carvings. The ancient sandstones were transported along artificial water canals from the nearby quarries of the Phnom Kulen mountains. Today, they are covered by vegetation or lay in great heaps. Walking along one of the four causeways with their Naga snake balustrades leading to the heart of the temple gives the visitor an idea of the size of Beng Mealea. One of the Khmer empire’s larger temples, it was the centre of a town, surrounded by a large 45-metre wide moat of about 1 kilometre by 1 kilometre. A wooden boardwalk makes the exploration easier and more respectful of the ancient ruins. It was built by the teams of the French film-maker Jean Jacques Annaud to shoot the movie 2 brothers in 2004. Walking amongst the labyrinth of stones, it is easy to understand how the poesy of the place seduced the film-maker.
If the Angkor Wat temple complex loses its authenticity with its close to 5 million tourists a year (2015), getting off the beaten path is a rewarding experience. Motor biking to Beng Mealea is a fantastic way to witness the local way of life and to explore lost temples that are not even shown on the map. For the most adventurous travellers who want to take it to the next level, Beng Mealea is on the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan, a remote and beautiful temple hardly visited, in the heart of the Cambodian jungle. Article to be published soon: please follow us to not miss out!
Marcella & Claire